Ben Hartman, Lean Farm Guide


lean-farmBen Hartman grew up on a corn and soybean farm in Indiana and graduated college with degrees in English and philosophy. Ben and his wife, Rachel Hershberger, own and operate Clay Bottom Farm in Goshen, Indiana, where they make their living growing and selling specialty crops on less than one acre. Their food is sold locally to restaurants and cafeterias, at a farmers market, and through a community-supported-agriculture (CSA) program. The farm has twice won Edible Michiana’s Reader’s Choice award. The Lean Farm, Ben’s first book, won the Shingo Institute’s prestigious Research and Professional Publication Award. In 2017, Ben was named one of fifty emerging green leaders in the United States by Grist. Follow the Clay Bottom Farm on Facebook.


Caryn Hartglass: Okay, now with my next guest. Because we want to eat all of those wonderful plant foods, where are they going to come from?

Ben Hartman, my next guest, is going to tell us a little bit more. He’s got a new book out The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables. Ben grew up on a corn and soybean farm in Indiana. Graduated college with degrees in English and philosophy. Ben and his wife, Rachel Hershberger, own and operate Clay Bottom Farm in Goshen, Indiana where they make their living growing and selling specialty crops on less than one acre. Their food is sold locally to restaurants, cafeterias, at a farmers’ market, and through a community supported agriculture CSA program. The farm has twice won Edible Michiana’s Reader’s Choice award. The Lean Farm, Ben’s first book, won the Shingo’s Institute Prestigious Shingo Research and Professional Publication Award. In 2017, Ben was named one of 50 emerging green leaders in the United States by Grist.

Welcome to It’s All About Food, Ben. How are you today?

Ben Hartman: Hey, thanks for having me. I’m well.

Caryn Hartglass: I’m glad, I’m glad. I really enjoyed reading your book and I read it rather quickly. At some point, when I’m ready to start my farm, this is going to be my guide. It’s amazing!

Ben Hartman: Hey, thank you. I appreciate it.

Caryn Hartglass: But I guess because you have degrees in English, that helped you write books.

Ben Hartman: Sure, never hurt.

Caryn Hartglass: So I have an engineering background and I love systems and organization. I know a lot of us when we think about the Earth and plants and growing things, it all seems to some degrees mysterious and to some degree difficult to control. Fortunately, the last fifty to seventy-five years, industrial agriculture’s been trying to culture the environment and growing plants with all kinds of toxic chemicals and stuff.

But you’ve come up with a plan that is sustainable and intelligent. And you can actually make some money.

Ben Hartman: Yeah. I think the local food movement is at a point where there actually is some real money in it, if you take the right approach. I try to outline that approach in the book. As you probably know, the lean system began in manufacturing.

Caryn Hartglass: Yup.

Ben Hartman: We’re kind of taking it out of the factory and putting it out onto the farm. A customer of ours approached us and asked if we would be interested in trying out this lean system on a farm. He runs a factory, lives in a trailer company. To be honest, we told him thanks but no thanks. Part of the reason is that factory methods on farms haven’t always turned out sustainable results. In fact, it’s less sustainability. The thing I told him was, “Imagine you’re running a factory without a roof over your head.”

Caryn Hartglass: (laughs)

Ben Hartman: There’s just too much solubility out here. You can’t systematize anything, much less a lean system.

However, in the end, we said yes. Really, at the heart of it, “lean” is about identifying waste and eliminating it from your system. Then delivering precisely what your customer wants, identifying what your customer wants, and really listening and taking your customer seriously. We had to admit that we actually did have a lot of waste on our farm and there was a lot of room for improvement. So we said okay, we’ll try it and see what happens.

We’ve tweaked the system. Not every piece of lean system fits superbly on a farm. However, the basic concept is identifying your waste and get rid of the waste has really given us a boost in profits, and farming is easier to do too.

Caryn Hartglass: This idea of waste and reducing waste is more profitable—and also saves you time—is very powerful, especially now where most of us—not everyone—is talking about climate change. According to, food waste is the third topic they list that can have the most improvement on climate change by reducing food waste. We lose food by so many different steps, but the biggest place that we lose food is on the farm. When you can be better about that, it’s also going to help improve our environment.

Ben Hartman: Uh-huh, absolutely. As you might know, the U.S. Department of Ag estimates that 20% of fresh fruits and vegetables that are produced are never even harvested and they’re never even going to leave their seals. Agriculture, as an industry, contributes more to fossil fuels and probable solutions than any other industry. So we have a lot on our shoulders here in the ag industry to take that seriously, and to reduce the amount of fossil fuel consumption and the amount of waste on our farms.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes.

Ben Hartman: Really, it’s good for us too. It’s not just good for everyone else living on planet Earth, it really does help on your bottom line to just cut out the waste and make sure that every seed turns into cash. That you’re not wasting any effort.

Caryn Hartglass: And I was fascinated by so many different steps that you looked at—just about every step in your process—and found ways to make things more efficient and faster. There was one line… I’m trying to remember what it was… But you said the work is tedious but should not be mindless. That applies to everything we do in life. So many things are routine, difficult, and challenging, but so important to be mindful about everything that we do. The discovery can be amazing.

Ben Hartman: Yeah. That’s one of the benefits of applying lean to the business. It declutters your working environment and makes it more easy to slip into a state of flow, where you can focus on the work at hand. And a result in happiness. Research shows that the most productive and the happiest workers, whether they’re on farms or on other places, are workers who have just what they need in front of them and no more. When you can get rid of the clutter, get rid of everything you don’t need and you can focus—it still can be hard work; I don’t want to say that it is not sometimes hard work on a farm. However, you can focus and you can enjoy your work more.

Caryn Hartglass: Now you’ve taken a lot of knowledge from the Japanese.

Ben Hartman: Uh-huh.

Caryn Hartglass: I imagine that some of their skills come from a great need for not having a lot of land and needing to be able to grow as efficiently as they possibly could.

Ben Hartman: Uh-huh.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah.

Ben Hartman: That’s true in countries like South Korea and Japan. Their small farming community is decades ahead of ours here. Maybe the tools that we use come from those countries, and the methods and the techniques. The reason is, as you say, they do not have access to large tracts of land. They’ve had to maximize every square foot in order to feed their growing populations.

That is at the heart of the lean system because the first workers at Toyota were rice farmers—Toyota’s considered the originator of the lean system. These rice farmers brought this really lean, no-waste way of thinking onto the factory floor. At the time, just after World War II, when Toyota began, it was a challenging environment to be an automobile manufacturer because the country had just been bombed out. No one was purchasing vehicles in Japan, and there are no stable suppliers for parts. It was a very difficult time to begin in automobile business.

However, they said we’re going to do it anyhow. We want to catch up to the U.S. automakers within three years.

So they set about applying this rice farm thinking to the factory, and they did it. Within a couple of decades, they had outpaced every other auto manufacturer. Became the world’s number one auto manufacturer.

Caryn Hartglass: My first car was a Toyota. (chuckles)

Ben Hartman: Okay, great. And it lasted a long time, probably.

Caryn Hartglass: It did. Absolutely.

Ben Hartman: So Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) sent a team of researchers over in the 1980s to figure out just what the heck is going on. That team really clarified the lean system and explained it in such a way that other businesses such as ours could use it and implement it.

Caryn Hartglass: One of the things that I love about it is that it takes into consideration that nothing is stagnant; everything changes, and you have to consistently go with the flow and change along with it.

Ben Hartman: Uh-huh, yeah. Change is the one thing that is constant—in the lean system.

Caryn Hartglass: That’s right. (chuckles)

Ben Hartman: The idea is that it’s not just to make your work more interesting. It’s we change… because we’re imperfect, and there’s always a better solution. If you think you’ve found the final solution, you’re probably ready to be shown the door. Because there are no final solutions. There are only implementations of perfection.

In the lean system, they say that perfection is the goal. You want to produce zero waste, absolutely no waste in your system. That is obviously unobtainable. There is always some waste that will come creeping in, one way or the other. However, if that’s what the goal is, you can always come closer.

Caryn Hartglass: Mm.

Ben Hartman: We’ve found every year we grow using different methods. The pacing changes really quick on our farm. We’re constantly finding new techniques, new methods, and new process recipes. It keeps our farm more interesting, and it makes it more profitable.

Caryn Hartglass: And did I read this right? Did you move around what you grow over different parts? You don’t always grow the same thing from the same plot?

Ben Hartman: Yeah, that’s true. There is quite a bit of rotation.

Caryn Hartglass: And why do you do that?

Ben Hartman: The idea behind that is one of the principles of lean is full capacity production. You want to be using every square foot of your factory, or every square inch of your greenhouse.

So what we do is that we see a space that is not used—certainly when a plot becomes open—we work very quickly to put a crop in. As soon as we harvest. For instance, maybe we have a bed of 300 heads of lettuce. Within a couple of hours, we’re going to plant some beets or something else in that space.

We’re constantly in that full capacity production. There’re no spaces that are open for very long. Just by virtue of following that principle, the crops get shifted around quite often.

Caryn Hartglass: You cover so many different things. You have one chapter on weed and pest control.

Ben Hartman: Uh-huh.

Caryn Hartglass: Which is a big issue, especially for those of us who want organic food. You grow organically, but you also use organic certification approved methods to handle pests and weeds. And I liked a number of times in the book when you talked about certain methods that people do, you always ended up finding that you liked the methods that seemed to work best were the ones where there was planning and preventative stuff ahead of time rather than having to fix something later on.

Ben Hartman: Yeah. In general, if we want a successful (say) tomato harvest in August, then the real planning for that begins in the previous August. About a year ahead. With soil preparation. With making sure that the infrastructure pieces are in place. And obviously listening to the customers, making sure that you’re growing the right type of tomatoes, the right color of tomatoes.

In that way, farming is unique. Because most crops that we grow take at least two to three months, and sometimes more. Relatively slow turnaround compared to a furniture factory.

Caryn Hartglass: (chuckles)

Ben Hartman: Where the producer can take an order in an afternoon. So we have a very slow turnaround period where I think it means that we have to work extra hard to plan ahead.

Caryn Hartglass: Speaking of tomatoes, you talked about the difference between heirloom, hybrid, and heritage tomatoes. Can you explain that to all of us who don’t really know for sure?

Ben Hartman: Basically an heirloom tomato would be a tomato whose seeds have been passed through the generations. So these are older, traditional varieties. Generations ago, they used to breed tomatoes for their flavor. Hard to believe, isn’t it? (chuckles)

Caryn Hartglass: (chuckles)

Ben Hartman: Now modern tomato breeders are, in general, looking for a tomato that ships. They want a hard outer shell.

Caryn Hartglass: Mm.

Ben Hartman: And they usually want a pretty regular-looking tomato. You don’t want too many funky colors and shapes.

These older tomatoes actually taste really good. On the other hand, these heirloom tomatoes often tend not to be very disease resistant. So a hybrid tomato would be a newer type of tomato that is bred—like I said—to ship and for uniformity.

A newer type of tomato would be a heritage tomato, and a heritage tomato would be a hybrid tomato that harkens back towards heirloom tomatoes. So there are newer types of tomatoes that are more disease resistant, and they have the color and the flavor of those heirloom tomatoes that you’d have.

We grow a mix of all three types, depending on what our customers are asking.

Caryn Hartglass: Right. Now back to weed and pest control because I was going somewhere and then I kind of went somewhere else. (chuckles)

Ben Hartman: Okay.

Caryn Hartglass: The point I was trying to make was when you plan like when you plan for tomatoes or when you plan for so many other things on your farm, you can significantly reduce the number of pests and weeds that are growing throughout rather than having to apply something unpleasant to get rid of them later on. Right?

Ben Hartman: That’s correct. Essentially what we’ve managed—an analogy would be like a carpenter building a house. You’re going to tackle that project with a whole truckload of tools. With weed management, I think it helps to have a lot of tools at your disposal. It’s a complicated subject. There a lot of ins and outs; it depends on the crop that’s going in.

However, a general rule that we use is if that crop is in the ground for two months or more. These would include tomatoes or peppers. As long as we’re using crops, we’re going to be using some type of mulch. Either a plastic mulch or a natural mulch like we use and strip off. If it’s a shorter season crop (two months or less), then we cultivate those crops plain.

Probably the most effective way that we have eliminated weeds from our farm is to simply transplant everything. We use very little dry seeding for the crop. Most of our crops go in between when they’re four to six weeks ahead. That means that they’re also four to six weeks ahead of the weeds. We can get a jump on them. That really cuts out on the weeding that we have to do.

Caryn Hartglass: Now, I imagine a lot of these techniques that you have developed can apply to any size farm or even someone’s garden.

Ben Hartman: Uh-huh. The reason is the types of waste that the lean system has identified, they’re ubiquitous. Rachel and I actually have a garden at our home, and those types of waste are in our home garden. They’re in the kitchen, they’re in the garage, they’re everywhere. And they’re in all kinds of work environments. There’s waiting waste, wasted motion—the book outlines the ten types.

And so it’s true. The vegetable growing techniques that we use, we use on a scale of about half an acre. You can certainly use every technique in there on a home garden too.

Caryn Hartglass: Your farm is called Clay Bottom Farm, and you’ve talked about how the soil is clay, actually.

Ben Hartman: Uh-huh.

Caryn Hartglass: You have these tables and things about the different types of soils you can have to farm in. But I was surprised because I never thought you could grow anything in clay.

Ben Hartman: It’s a double-edged sword because it’s very difficult to work. It sticks in your house, it sticks to your tools. It’s very hard to transplant into. However, clay holds so much nutrients that you need to add very little fertility to it.

Basically what we did was we added lots of weeds, lots of grass clippings, lots of pasture toppings—lots of organic mulch. We made a lot of compost. We added that and mixed it in, and that really loosened it and made it a workable soil. We’ve been very happy with it.

Caryn Hartglass: You have two young children now, right?

Ben Hartman: That’s correct, yeah, I have two. One and three.

Caryn Hartglass: One and three. And they’re out there helping out on the farm.

Ben Hartman: I mean, I would use the word “help” in air quotes. (chuckles)

Caryn Hartglass: (laughs) Because there were some pretty good pictures in your book. (chuckles)

Ben Hartman: Yeah, we actually love and adore our kids. One of the many benefits of leading up our property and our farm, the one that I am proudest of, is that it frees up a couple days a week that I can spend on our kids.

Caryn Hartglass: And you can even take a vacation.

Ben Hartman: And that we have plenty of time for vacations. I had five camping trips with them last year.

Caryn Hartglass: Oh my goodness.

Ben Hartman: It’s an absolutely chill way to farm with kids, as long as you have the time and energy to do it.

Caryn Hartglass: You also talk about how you’re going to decide what to grow and how, to some extent, let your customers lead you—or pull you, I think the term was.

Ben Hartman: Uh-huh, uh-huh.

Caryn Hartglass: So what are the trends right now? What are the customers demanding?

Ben Hartman: Most people in the U.S. now eat outside of the home, most of the time. And for the minority of foods that we eat are prepared in the home. What’s trending is foods that are prepared, which means that it fails to rest on, are really booming. Especially these artisan restaurants. We’ve noticed the last five or six years in our business that our sales for restaurants went from 20% to the point where you see most of our food now, 50%, goes to restaurants.

What that means is that we’re doing a lot of listening to chefs. You can do what I do with anywhere. I go in, I talk to each of our chefs, and I try to eat a meal at each of the restaurants that we deliver here. And we’re serving the menus. I’ll ask, “Hey, chef. What’s new on the menu now that’s here?” and “Could we plant crops that are complimenting what you’re doing?” I can offer suggestions too. But in general, we take their lead and really try to listen closely.

According to lean, there are basically three questions that you need to ask your customer:
1. What will you want, what’s the specific product that you’re after?
2. When do you want it?
3. How much do you want?

Very simple. It’s not very difficult to address and answer these questions. However, it does take a little extra effort.

We found that a very simple technique is to go to each of our customers, each of our chefs, and ask them a version of these three questions. And then we pull a calendar out for the coming year and we file their orders. We get them what they want, when they want it, and the right amount throughout the growing season. The closer that we are to answering and delivering on those questions precisely, then the more profitable we are at the end of the year. And that’s basically our farm system.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so what did they ask for last winter?

Ben Hartman: Fennel is becoming more popular because it has a lot of uses. For instance, we have our microbrewery that shreds their fennel and puts it on their hamburgers. There’s another restaurant that makes a fennel slaw; it’s like a coleslaw that’s half-fennel. There’s another restaurant that’s roasting them.

Caryn Hartglass: Wow, nice.

Ben Hartman: They’ll cut into little half-inch, little French fry shapes, and they roast them. They make a wonderful side dish.

Caryn Hartglass: Wonderful. I lived in the south of France in the early ‘90s, and fennel is very popular in French cuisine. I guess the American chefs are figuring that out now.

Ben Hartman: Uh-huh. And another one that’s becoming more popular is rhubarb.

Caryn Hartglass: Really?

Ben Hartman: Rhubarb’s an older, traditional vegetable. However, there’s so much you can do with it, including drinks. There’s a traditional rhubarb drink that some places are starting to use.

Caryn Hartglass: Oh wow.

Ben Hartman: And obviously desserts. There’s a whole range of desserts and other fruits you can mix it with.

Caryn Hartglass: And what does rhubarb look like when you grow it?

Ben Hartman: It grows low to the ground. Looks like a small bush with large elephant-eared shaped leaves. The chefs, they like the rhubarb ripe. They like the bright red stalks. They want a lot of color.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, I’ve seen the stalks sold in stores, but I didn’t know what the entire plant looked like or where those stalks came from.

Ben Hartman: Mm.

Caryn Hartglass: (chuckles)

Ben Hartman: It’s very easy to grow them in your home because they’re perennial. You can plant it once and you can harvest it for ten to twenty years.

Caryn Hartglass: Right. Well, this is just fascinating and—what we’re talking about now is The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables, but you had a book previous to this that kind of goes along with it, right?

Ben Hartman: Yeah, my first book is just called Lean Farm. That talks about the lean system in general terms and explains it in such a way that I think farmers can wrap their heads around it. Then I give examples of how we apply lean, in some cases, on our farms.

Then the new book which is just coming out a week ago is called The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables. This one gives you detailed information on how to grow crops, whether you’re home garden or market grower. I tell you everything that I learned in the last fifteen years.

Caryn Hartglass: (laughs)

Ben Hartman: It’s the book that I wished I had and available when I began.

Caryn Hartglass: You talk in the book about how most of your customers you try to keep within a ten-mile radius, and that also helps keep your system lean because you’re not wasting money on travel. And that’s really the way how all farms should operate. Shouldn’t we have farms near the population and working together?

Ben Hartman: It’s actually the way that all farms used to operate. It’s only been in the last two to three generations that we’ve kind of gotten used to this idea that we can ship our food across the world to whoever wants to pay enough to eat it. The reality is within 100 miles in just about any part of the U.S., you can grow such a wide range of crops. If you want to start as a small-scale farmer, there’s really no reason to look very far from home. And I say keep your food as close to home as possible.

Caryn Hartglass: Those are great messages. Ben Hartman, thank you so much for joining me today. I loved reading your book. Thank you for creating this system that is going to be so helpful to so many people.

Ben Hartman: Hey, thank you for having me. Thank you.

Caryn Hartglass: You’re welcome. Ben Hartman, The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables, published by Chelsea Green, one of my favorite publishers.

Well, that wraps up another It’s All About Food show. I’m so glad you joined me. And remember, if you’re still thinking about Plant-Powered and Thriving, we’re starting tonight. Go to

I’m Caryn Hartglass. Thanks for joining me on It’s All About Food. Have a delicious week!

Transcribed by HT 1/2/2018

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